College Weekend Preview: May 17

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1. Rice visits Central Florida in a battle for the C-USA crown.
2. Indiana State sits on the brink of a rare MVC title heading into showdown with Missouri State.
3. Four more teams will punch their tickets in conference tournaments this weekend.
4. Quick takes on the weekend's other big storylines.

Four conference tournament champions will be crowned this weekend, clinching trips to regionals (more on those later). For most of the other conferences, tournies begin in the middle of next week, so series in most leagues will be played from Thursday through Saturday this week. There is plenty on the line across the country in the regular-season finale for most teams, but let's focus on the clash between the two teams tied atop the standings in Conference USA.

Conference USA Powers Collide In Orlando

Rice is the perennial powerhouse, looking to extend its streak of 16 consecutive seasons with either a regular-season or tournament title, dating back to its Southwest Conference tournament title in 1996 (and including its dominating run in the Western Athletic Conference). The Owls have won at least a share of the regular-season title in five of their first six seasons in C-USA.

"I know our kids are looking forward to it," pitching coach Mike Taylor said. "We've got a lot on the line—they want to protect that streak. They've got pride."

Top 25 Schedule
(13) North Carolina State at (1) Florida State
(9) Louisiana State at (2) South Carolina
(3) Florida at Auburn
(4) Kentucky at Mississippi State
(5) Rice at (16) Central Florida
Seattle at (6) Oregon
(7) Baylor vs./at/at Texas
UC Riverside at (8) Cal State Fullerton
(10) Texas A&M at Oklahoma State
(11) UCLA at California
Virginia Tech at (12) North Carolina
(14) Arizona at Southern California
(15) Purdue at Iowa
(17) Stanford at Utah
Washington at (18) Arizona State
(19) Virginia at Maryland
San Diego State at (20) Texas Christian
(22) Louisville at Pittsburgh
(23) Oregon State at Washington State
(24) Appalachian State at Western Carolina
(25) Mississippi at Vanderbilt
In the other dugout, Central Florida is the emerging power, looking to win its first conference title since it won the Atlantic Sun in 2004. If the Knights (No. 23 in the Ratings Percentage Index) take two out of three this weekend to beat out the Owls for first place, they'll stand a solid chance to host a regional for the first time ever. UCF has taken steps forward in each of coach Terry Rooney's first three seasons, and this would be a huge leap forward.

"I think in order for us to be strongly considered to host, I think we need to win this series," Rooney said. "I don't know if winning the championship secures us a regional, but in order for us to be strongly considered, we need to win this series."

By the same token, Rice (No. 16 in the RPI) must win the regular-season title and likely couple it with a C-USA tournament title to be strongly considered for a national seed. But if the Owls do not win the series against UCF, they could be in danger of missing out on hosting altogether.

So that's what's at stake in Orlando, where the two teams with matching 15-6 conference records will go at it. The Owls (2.90 staff ERA, best in C-USA) and Knights (3.08) also have two of the best pitching staffs in the league, and watching the two staffs match up should be a treat.

Rice's staff has allowed fewer hits per nine innings (6.94) than any in the nation, while ranking second in strikeouts per nine (9.0). This is a power staff that seems to be peaking at the right time. Highly touted sophomore righties Austin Kubitza and John Simms were two of the biggest keys to Rice's season heading into the year, and they turned in strong starts in back-to-back days last weekend, joining ace Matthew Reckling in a retooled rotation. Taylor said the Owls were leaning toward sticking with that trio this weekend, though they were also considering moving lefthander Taylor Wall into a starting role. Those four pitchers rank first (Wall), second (Simms), third (Kubitza) and fourth (Reckling) in opposing batting average during Conference USA games.

Kubitza struggled mightily with his command in the first half of the season. He never got hit particularly hard (as his .226 batting average against can attest), but he issued too many walks and struggled with his mechanics. The Owls yanked him out of the rotation and worked hard on straightening out his alignment and rebuilding his confidence. For six weeks, Rice had two sets of eyes watching every pitch Kubitza threw in bullpen sessions, according to Taylor, and the hard work paid off. He has posted a C-USA-best 0.93 ERA in three conference starts since returning to the weekend rotation. That has improved him to 5-3, 3.22 overall.

"When he's in the zone, throwing that sinker down at the knees, he's tough to hit with those angles," Taylor said. "His velocity was down early, it got compounded because he was getting farther and farther across his body. We've moved him to other side of rubber, moved him to far right side—he was on the left side—and it seemed to help him."

His slider, which had been flat early on, is finally regaining its tilt, and he has done a better job commanding his four-seam fastball, which has extreme two-seam movement even though he never uses a two-seam grip, Taylor said.

Simms (4-0, 2.82) spent the entire season in the bullpen, but when Jordan Stephens failed to record an out in the first inning of a midweek game against Texas A&M on April 17, Simms came in and threw six innings of scoreless, three-hit relief. So when Andrew Benak began struggling in the Sunday role, the coaches figured Simms could handle that job. He has allowed two runs over 5 2/3 innings in each of his first two starts, working in the 88-92 range. His split-finger fastball is an out pitch against righties as well as lefties, and Taylor said he has rediscovered the quality curveball that made him so dominant in the Cape Cod League last summer.

In his senior year, Wall (5-3, 3.25 in 53 innings of relief) has also improved immensely. For his first three seasons, Wall was known for his outstanding changeup, but this year he has developed a quality slider, which has made him more effective against lefties but also allowed him to keep righties honest.

"He's always been a changeup guy, but now he's finally got something breaking hard against a righty's back knee, that's been his key this year," Taylor said. "Because guys used to dive out over the plate, they never had a third pitch to worry about with him. He's struggled more against lefties than righties in the past, because lefties took away his changeup."

Wall plus righties J.T. Chargois (4-1, 2.38) and Tyler Duffey (1-1, 2.01) anchor a Rice bullpen that rates among the nation's best, which is why the Owls could afford to move Simms into the rotation. Rice is 33-1 when leading after eight innings, 32-1 when leading after seven and 29-1 when leading after six.

UCF's bullpen might not be as renowned, but it is similarly outstanding. The Knights are 36-0 when leading after eight innings, 35-1 when leading after seven and 31-2 when leading after six. Righthander Roman Madrid (3-2, 0.70, three saves) and lefty Joe Rogers (4-1, 1.73, 11 saves) form a stellar one-two punch to anchor the unit.

"Obviously, we're special at the back of the bullpen with Madrid and Rogers," Rooney said. "Roman was a junior-college transfer, he had a very good arm and a pretty good slider that is an out pitch. His command has just gotten better and better, combined with a bulldog mentality. He's been 89-93 and touched some 4s this year.

"Rogers has been our closer since the moment he stepped on campus three years ago. The difference with him is his command has taken a big step forward. He's been 89-92 every outing, with a slider and a changeup. Those two guys exude poise and confidence for us at the end of games."

The rotation has featured five different pitchers over the course of the season, but Rooney said the Knights feel good about starting all five. This weekend, he is starting lefthander Chris Matulis (6-0, 2.73) in Thursday's opener, followed by sophomore righty Ben Lively (8-1, 2.97) on Friday and Saturday TBA (candidates include Brian Adkins, Ray Hanson and Eric Skoglund).

Matulis, coming off Tommy John surgery, has commanded his stuff better as the season has progressed, and Rooney said he has probably been the most consistent starter of the bunch. He isn't overpowering with an 84-86 mph fastball, but he mixes speeds and locations well and has plenty of valuable experience.

Lively has come on strong since the Knights adjusted his arm slot, moving it away from his head a little bit, which has helped him improve his command. With a lean 6-foot-4 frame, an 88-92 fastball, and the makings of a good changeup and breaking ball, Lively has the most upside of any UCF starter, and his emergence in the rotation has been critical (though he had a rough outing last weekend against Marshall).

"What has happened with our pitching staff in the last month and a half is Ben Lively has regained his form and is pitching the best that he has pitched since he's been at UCF," Rooney said. "Going into the season, we felt like this was the deepest pitching staff we've had here in the last four years, but Lively was without question going to be the key. He's got the stuff, the frame—it was just a matter of him putting it all together with his command."

So both of these teams consider pitching to be their strength. UCF's veteran-laden offense has "continued to gain momentum" over the course of the season, as Rooney put it, and now ranks second in the league in batting (.298) and home runs (38), while leading C-USA in scoring (6.9 runs per game).

The Owls haven't been a fearsome offensive team, but freshman shortstop Ford Stainback and junior-college transfer second baseman Christian Stringer have been hot in the top two spots in the lineup lately, making the offense go. And perhaps most importantly, junior outfielder Michael Ratterree has finally showed signs of emerging from his season-long slump, hitting .350 with three homers and 11 RBIs over his last 11 games to raise his season line to .256/.390/.444 with six homers and 31 RBIs. Ratterree has done a better job staying back on the ball, which has helped him see pitches better and keep his barrel in the zone longer.

"I think he's going to be a force for the rest of the season," Rice coach Wayne Graham told the Houston Chronicle last week.

The Owls get the edge in the defense column. The quick-twitch Stainback is learning on the job at shortstop but is getting better every day, and he and Stringer have solidified the Owls up the middle. Rice is fielding .977 as a team, while the Knights are fielding .972. Rooney said his team's defense has been streaky, but he labeled it "average" for the majority of the year.

It will have to be better than that to beat opportunistic Rice.

"One of the reasons that Rice is successful and always has been successful is they play fundamentally sound baseball," Rooney said. "Rice traditionally does not beat themselves. That's a credit to coach Graham, the discipline and the way they play the game. In order to put yourself in position to beat Rice, you can't beat yourself. They will take advantage of any opportunity you give them."

There's a reason the Owls have won conference titles for 16 straight years.

Sycamores Bearing Down On Elusive Valley Title

Indiana State enters the final weekend of Missouri Valley Conference play sitting atop the standings, needing just one win at home against second-place Missouri State to clinch its first outright MVC regular-season title since joining the league in 1977. (The Sycamores won the East Division in 1982 and 83 and tied with Wichita State in 1985).

The Sycamores, who were voted fifth in the Valley's preseason coaches poll and picked to finish seventh in the eight-team conference by Baseball America, have seemingly come out of nowhere to reach the 40-win plateau (40-13) for the first time since 1992.

But third-year ISU coach Rick Heller had an inkling heading into the season that his team could surprise some people.

"I guess I knew this team had a chance to be pretty special, because a lot of the key position players were starters my first year here, and we had a nice 35-win season with that team," Heller said.

The 2010 Sycamores finished in third place in the MVC (10-10) but lost a number of key veterans after the season, so it took some time for last year's young team to gel. Heller said his team played well down the stretch in 2011 and won three games in the conference tournament, building confidence for 2012.

Now Indiana State has a lineup loaded with upperclassmen who are both physically and mentally mature. Its pitching staff features four quality starters who work deep into ballgames to keep strain off the bullpen, and the defense is very reliable, fielding at a .975 clip. The Sycamores are just a good, balanced club, with a .295 batting average, solid power (33 home runs), a little speed (43 steals), and a 3.03 staff ERA.

"We've played really good baseball the whole season. We've given ourselves a chance almost every day," Heller said. "We're solid defensively, our starting pitching has been outstanding all season long. For a while we were leading the country in hitting I think, and the month of April we slumped, had injuries to a couple key guys, but our starting pitching and defense kept us in games, so we fought through that."

Each Indiana State starting pitcher offers a different look. Ace junior righthander Dakota Bacus (6-3, 2.09) is a "classic Friday night warrior," in Heller's words, who attacks hitters with an 89-90 mph fastball that bumps 92-93, a hard slider and solid changeup. No. 2 starter Sean Maneaa (5-1, 3.09) is a 6-foot-5 sophomore lefthander who has so much run on his fastball (which touches the low 90s) that he can get hitters out even when he's not commanding his slider and changeup particularly well. No. 3 starter Ryan Torgerson (8-2, 3.04) is a strike-throwing junior righty with an 87-88 mph fastball, a decent breaking ball and a very good changuep.

And freshman righty Kyle Rupe (6-1, 2.63) has emerged as a strong fourth starter, helping the Sycamores go 10-2 in midweek action. Rupe works in the 87-90 range to go along with a very good hard slider and solid changeup.

Indiana State has a quality veteran catcher to handle its pitching staff in junior Jeremy Lucas, who is also the team's most dangerous offensive threat (.357/.456/.568 with nine homers, 50 RBIs and a 29-18 BB-K mark).

"First of all, he's a very good catcher. Along with our pitching staff, he does a really good job controlling the running game," Heller said. "He can throw well, but he's a really good hitter, a pure, natural hitter. He has a real quiet, soft load and is able to spit on a lot of tough pitches most guys don't. He will work both gaps and also has pull-side power."

Two more upperclassmen, junior Rob Ort (.301/.363/.502 with seven homers and 51 RBIs) and Jon Hedges (.311/.357/.469 with six homers and 39 RBIs), give the Sycamores more power around Lucas. And freshman Landon Curry (.326/.436/.369 with 15 steals) has become the engine that makes the Sycamores go from atop the lineup. "He's one of those guys that's one step, full speed," Heller said. "He plays the game so fast, he puts a lot of pressure on the defense."

Add it all up, and Indiana State has a regionals-caliber team. And with a No. 48 RPI, a 4-3 record against the top 50, and series wins against Dallas Baptist and Wichita State, the Sycamores have a solid chance to get into a regional even if they don't win the MVC's automatic bid. A regular-season championship would certainly help pad their resume, so this weekend is important.

Missouri State was the preseason favorite in the conference and spent most of the year in first place until dropping a home series against Evansville last week. The Bears can match the Sycamores on the mound, especially now that flame-thrower Pierce Johnson is healthy again (he allowed just one run in a complete game last Sunday but took a 1-0 loss).

Missouri State ace Nick Petree, of course, is having a season for the ages. After throwing eight shutout innings last week, Petree extended his scoreless streak to 38 innings, and he hasn't allowed an earned run in 72 2/3 innings over 11 starts, dating back to March 2. His season ERA is a minuscule 0.58, which is best in the nation by more than half a run (Coastal Carolina's Aaron Burke is second at 1.14). Petree is 10-2 with 97 strikeouts and 29 walks in 93 innings.

"Petree is a guy who is tough to hit," Heller said. "He pitches from the far first-base side of the rubber, kind of comes at you backwards. He almost pitches like a lefthander with that angle. He has a hard slider, a good changeup, his two-seamer has crazy movement—everything he throws has a lot of movement. It's not something you see everyday, and it's going to be a challenge. But most of our Friday games are 2-1, 3-2 or 1-0 anyway, so it won't be too different for us."

Four More Tickets Set To Be Punched

The Southwestern and Mid-Eastern Atlantic conferences began their tournaments Wednesday, while the Northeast Conference tournament started Thursday and the best-of-three Patriot League championship series kicks off with a doubleheader Sunday. By Monday, four more teams will join Ivy League champion Cornell as automatic entrants in the NCAA tournament.

There was a significant upset in the first day of the double-elimination SWAC tourney, as Mississippi Valley State (which carried a 14-38 overall record into the tournament) claimed a 6-4 victory against Southern, which carried a 16-game winning streak into the tourney. Tournament favorite Jackson State got off to a better start, beating Texas Southern 7-0 behind a complete-game shutout from Desmond Russell. The 5-foot-7 Russell (10-2, 2.34) and senior righty Quintavious Drains (11-4, 2.90) form the SWAC's premier one-two pitching punch, giving the Tigers a leg up on the rest of the field. But Southern, which led the conference in ERA (3.81), might have a deeper pitching staff, so don't count the Jaguars out yet. As usual, controlling the running game will be critical in the SWAC tournament, as three of the nation's top six basestealing teams—Alabama State, Jackson State and MVSU—call the SWAC home.

Alabama State coach Mervyl Melendez's old team, Bethune-Cookman, is seeking its seventh consecutive MEAC tournament championship. The Wildcats went 18-5 in conference play to win the Southern Division, and they got off to a good start in the conference tournament with a 10-4 win against Coppin State, in a game that was suspended by rain yesterday and completed today. B-CU still has MEAC pitcher of the year Rayan Gonzalez (8-1, 2.16) ready to go after starting Scott Garner in the opener. It's hard to bet against Bethune-Cookman in the MEAC, but Delaware State actually posted the best league record (22-2) en route to the Northern Division title. Led by MEAC player of the year Ryan Haas (.361/.457/.494, 53 RBIs), the Hornets have a balanced, potent offense. They also have the league's best pitching staff, with three starters with sub-3.00 ERAs: Matt McClain (9-3, 2.18), Jordan Elliott (9-2, 2.31) and Zach Adkins (7-1, 2.92). Delaware State opened the tournament with a 10-8 win against Savannah State this afternoon.

Bryant (24-8) won the regular-season title in the NEC, but it is in its final season as a reclassifying Division I member so it is not eligible for the postseason. That leaves Monmouth (21-11) as the top seed in the four-team NEC tournament, and the Hawks got off to a good start with a 7-1 win against Fairleigh Dickinson today behind a complete game from ace Pat Light. Central Connecticut State and Sacred Heart, which each went 19-13 in NEC play, meet in the No. 2 vs. No. 3 seed game. CCSU led the conference in batting (.298) and home runs (29) in the regular season, while ranking second behind Bryant in ERA (4.18).

In the Patriot League, top-seeded Army takes on second-seeded Holy Cross in a rematch of the final series of the regular season. The Black Knights had clinched the regular-season title heading into that four-game series, which the teams split. Army coach Joe Sottolano called Holy Cross the more physical team heading into the first meeting between the teams, but the Black Knights are solid in all facets of the game. The Crusaders also have a bona fide ace in senior lefthander Nate Koneski (7-2, 2.12 with 77 strikeouts in 68 innings). Army's own ace, junior righty Chris Rowley, improved to 11-0, 1.79 despite giving up six earned runs in seven innings against Lafayette last week. Holy Cross, meanwhile, allowed just two runs in a two-game sweep of Navy, as Koneski and Donny Murray turned in strong starts and the bullpen was flawless. Standout closer John Colella (5-1, 2.13 with 11 saves) worked 1.2 scoreless innings in each game. "Holy Cross is probably one of the more physical teams in the conference—they're talented," Sottolano said three weeks ago. "Their closer really throws the ball well, and he's in every game. We've got to get a lead; if you go in late against him without a lead, he's tough to beat."

Quick Takes

• In Stock Report this week, we broke down the race for national seeds in the Southeastern Conference and concluded that the winner of the LSU-South Carolina series in Columbia figures to earn one of those coveted top-eight slots, while the other could find itself on the road for super regionals. This is a big series, and LSU will have to try to win it without starting catcher Ty Ross, who had an emergency appendectomy last weekend (he could return by the end of the SEC tournament). Jordy Snikeris has filled in behind the plate in the last three games.

The Thursday matchup between likely All-Americans Kevin Gausman (8-1, 2.95) and Michael Roth (5-0, 2.60) is as good as college pitching matchups get—a striking contrast in styles between the flame-throwing righthander with a chance to be drafted first overall, and the finesse lefty who is the most accomplished pitcher in college baseball. Friday's matchup between freshman Aaron Nola (6-3, 3.86) and Forrest Koumas (2-2, 5.40) is similarly intriguing. The Gamecocks need Koumas to give them a boost down the stretch, especially if Colby Holmes struggles to regain his form after missing three weeks when he popped his throwing shoulder out of socket while stretching. Holmes returned to the mound Tuesday and struggled in a short outing against South Carolina-Upstate. And freshman lefthander Jordan Montgomery has been hit hard in recent weeks, leaving the question of who will start Saturday for South Carolina up in the air.

So LSU gets the edge on the mound this weekend, but South Carolina has home-field advantage and a roster populated with proven champions. It's hard to bet against the Gamecocks—who have not lost any of their last six weekend series—in a meaningful series down the stretch.

• Two other SEC matchups to keep an eye on: Kentucky at Mississippi State and Mississippi at Vanderbilt. The Wildcats have a half-game lead over South Carolina and a game lead over LSU, so barring a South Carolina sweep they can clinch the regular-season title with a couple of wins in Starkville. Standing in their way is MSU coach John Cohen—who led Kentucky to its only previous SEC title in 2006.

The Commodores, meanwhile, need to win two out of three to put themselves in good position to finish above .500 overall and be eligible for an at-large bid. If they can do that, they'll need just one win in Hoover to guarantee a winning record. If they lose two out of three, they'll carry a .500 record into the SEC tournament, which means they would need to go at least 3-2 in Hoover to finish with a winning record. Ole Miss, meanwhile, still has an outside shot at hosting a regional if a host of dominoes fall their way, but they likely need to sweep the series in Nashville to keep that possibility alive. That's a tall order against a Vanderbilt team that is playing well down the stretch, with series wins in four of the last five weeks, including a huge set in Baton Rouge last weekend.

• Can North Carolina State snag a national seed? The Wolfpack has been an afterthought in that discussion all season, but it ranks 12th in the RPI heading into a showdown in Tallahassee this weekend, and a series win against the top-ranked Seminoles could push N.C. State past UNC in the ACC's pecking order. At 18-9 in conference play, N.C. State is one game worse than UNC (19-8), which won the Coastal Division title as well as the head-to-head series against the Wolfpack. But the 'Pack has momentum, with series wins in six of its last seven series since dropping two of three in Chapel Hill. Side note: the Wolfpack will be without coach Elliott Avent for the first two games in Tallahassee after he was suspended three games for making physical contact with an umpire last weekend.

• The marquee series in the Big 12 pits Texas against Baylor. After getting swept at Oklahoma last weekend, the Bears rebounded with a 14-3 midweek win against Texas-San Antonio, and they could use another strong weekend to regain some of the momentum they lost when they took a week and a half off for exams. Texas, meanwhile, needs to win this series to secure itself as an at-large team. The Longhorns have lost back-to-back series against Texas A&M and Missouri and sit right on the bubble at No. 51 in the RPI. Texas is depleted on the mound after dismissing freshman Ricky Jacquez for a second violation of team rules, and losing freshman Parker French to a season-ending injury. But Corey Knebel's debut as a starter was a success last weekend, as he allowed just one hit in seven shutout innings against Texas Southern. Baylor has the deeper, more reliable pitching staff, anchored by Josh Turley and Trent Blank, and Baylor is dramatically more physical and offensive than Texas. Baylor looks like a heavy favorite this weekend, assuming last weekend's struggles were just a one-week hiccup.